As much as it seems like a shock each and every year, Rafael Nadal has struggled at Wimbledon for a long while now. He last reached the quarterfinals in 2011, when he lost in the final to Novak Djokovic. Still, Nadal has always been one of the favorites entering the tournament each year since then.
It is abundantly clear, as we have seen in Nadal’s five losses at Wimbledon (he didn’t compete due to injury last year), that he struggles against a certain type of player on grass. A big server who can hit powerful groundstrokes and play inside the baseline is always dangerous against Nadal on grass. Gilles Muller absolutely fits that profile. He has a serve that is very difficult to deal with, especially on grass, and his ground game is big enough to hit through Nadal’s usually-impenetrable defense.
This match was interesting for a few reasons, not the least of which being that we still aren’t used to seeing Nadal outhit around the court, even on grass. For a match in which during the first two sets Nadal actually took more points off his opponent’s serve than vice versa, the feeling throughout those sets was one of Nadal being on the back foot. Nadal may have won more rallies on the Muller serve, but it certainly seemed throughout that the Muller return was more effective and that Nadal has having far more trouble returning Muller’s serve than Muller was with Nadal’s.
The match started off pretty even, with each player holding serve comfortably. Nadal took Muller to deuce in the fifth game, but Muller held and responded by immediately breaking Nadal. From there, he held out the set. The second set saw much of the same. The first eight games had several holds that weren’t particularly comfortable, but each hold eventually came through without too much drama. Again, after Muller held from deuce in the eighth game, he came back and immediately broke Nadal in the following one. One hold later, and Muller suddenly had a two-set lead.
Nadal has never been one to give up without a fight. He broke Muller early in the third set and gave a trademark fist pump and “Vamos!” to show the crowd that he was far from out of it. He managed to hold his serve the rest of the way and take the set, but Muller didn’t let that faze him. Muller did not quite have the pop on his groundstrokes that he had earlier in the match, and it showed. Nadal was holding serve easily and controlling the rallies in the fourth set, earning a break for 3-2. Nadal held his serve three times and all of a sudden we were going five.
Muller was serving first in the fifth set, which can often be important. There was an extended break before the start of the set, which Muller clearly used to regroup. His serve and groundstrokes were far more confident in the decider, and he was again holding without being under consistent pressure. After nine drama-free holds, Muller opened up two match points on the Nadal serve after a double-fault by the Spaniard, but Nadal managed to win four straight points for the hold. Muller responded with a hold to love, but Nadal opened up a break point at 6-6. Muller saved it with a huge serve up the middle, and saved four more at 9-9, including one on a huge backhand pass down the line. and Nadal couldn’t find his way out of trouble a few games later as Muller broke to take the deciding set 15-13.
Maybe expectations from Nadal were a little too high this tournament. After all, it’s easy to forget his struggles at Wimbledon when we think of his year so far. He reached the final at the Australian Open, was his usual dominant self on clay, and coming in to this match had not lost a set at a Slam since the Australian Open final. Nadal going deeper into this tournament shouldn’t have surprised us, but this loss shouldn’t be taken as a bad sign either. Nadal has still been one of the best on tour all year–it’s just clear that he has some weaknesses on grass. He should still be expected to be a force during the summer hard court season and at the US Open.
For Muller, this is absolutely the biggest win of his career. The 34-year-old from Luxembourg made his first appearance at a Grand Slam at the Australian Open in 2004. Now, over 13 years later, he is playing the best tennis of his career and has books his place in only his second Grand Slam quarterfinal (2008 US Open).